Monday, September 30, 2013

The Strasburg Plan Didn’t Kill the Nats

By Jeff Kallman

I said it last October, when the Washington Nationals imploded in a division series Game 5 they had practically in the bank. And I'll say it again, John Feinstein be damned. (Only kidding, sir.) The Strasburg Plan had nothing to do with the Nats going no further than the division series last year. And it had nothing to do with them going nowhere but home when the regular season ended this past weekend.

I'm one of Davey Johnson's biggest admirers, but I think Johnson was wrong to suggest that while, yes, Feinstein is a little off in his analysis ("idiot" is the word Johnson actually used), nevertheless yes, the Nats would have bagged it last year if Stephen Strasburg hadn't been shut down for the sake of taking no chances with his surgically-repaired elbow.

It wasn't Strasburg who planted in his mates the idea that, once you get an early 6-0 lead in the deciding division series game, you step up to the plate trying to hit 6-run homers on every other swing, or you go out to the mound trying to strike everybody out on one pitch. Which is just what the St. Louis Cardinals refused to do, playing patiently, exposing the Nats' over-anxieties, and finally punching through against a gassed closer, even when they were down to their final strike.

It wasn't Strasburg who misinterpreted Drew Storen's blown Game 5 save on a third straight night's work with nothing left in the tank and went forth to sign up free agent Rafael Soriano, who'd stepped up big for the Yankees when they had to live 2012 without The Mariano thanks to injury.

That said, it wasn't exactly Soriano's fault the Nats pulled up way short this season. The man saved 42 games and was probably lucky to be looking at save opportunities in a few of those games. Unless,as the Washington Post‘s Adam Kilgore says, you're trying to argue that if Storen doesn't blow the save Soriano doesn't get the deal, and that Strasburg on the mound would have guaranteed the Nats going to the League Championship Series at least, perhaps because Storen wouldn't have had the chance to blow the save.

Let's see. Was it Strasburg, Soren, and Soriano who told this year's Nats to make a shambles of fundamental baseball execution early enough and often enough?

Was it the Triple-S Trio who told this year's Nats that they could manage very well without a lot of left-handed relief?

Was it any or all of the three who told Dan Haren to hold off showing his best stuff until he'd made a one-man disaster of himself for the season's first two months?

Was it any or all of them who imploded Danny Espinoza's career before their very eyes (or chipped a bone in his right wrist while he hit a buck fifty-eight — even as he played without having surgery on his barking rotator cuff) and otherwise fashioned a bench with only one portion (Steve Lombardozzi) worth his position in the second half? (Lombardozzi leads the Show in pinch hits this year.) Who told anyone who'd listen that they could live without Ross Detwiler for the final two or three months of the season?

Whom among the trio told Bryce Harper that making himself the reincarnation of Pistol Pete Reiser wouldn't matter a damn because outfield fences nowadays are a lot more forgiving than the old Ebbets Field concrete wall? Or told Harper, Jayson Werth, and Wilson Ramos (who won the regular catching job back in July) that they could hit the disabled list (or, in Harper's case, try playing through the pain) and not have to worry about the slack being picked up by … not a lot of people?

I don't remember either Strasburg, Soren, or Soriano telling their mates on April 12 they could batter Atlanta rook Julio Teheran into a 4-2 lead for themselves and then survive on two hits the rest of the night, before Ryan Zimmerman turned the should-have-been final out into a two-run error, setting the proverbial stage for Ramiro Pena to hit a two-run homer off Craig Stannen in the tenth that would go unanswered in the bottom.

I can't recall any of the threesome telling their mates on May 12 that a 1-0 lead with Gio Gonzalez throwing seven shutout would hold up with no effort, not even when Storen surrendered a tying run in the eighth, and that it would be okay for Kurt Suzuki (who looked great as a late-2012 addition, but couldn't hold the starting catching job this year) to try throwing out a third base thief, but succeed only in hitting Wellington Castro's bat, allowing the thief to send home the go-ahead run that held up.

You'd have to dig very hard to find any evidence any of the three told Harper to flinch on chasing down Gregor Blanco's liner toward right center on May 21. When Blanco swung, the Giants were down to their final out, but Harper's flinch let Buster Posey score the tying run. And Yunesky Maya was brought in to pitch the 10th. And Pablo Sandoval hit one five miles for a 4-2 Giants win. And Maya hasn't been seen in the Show since.

You'd have to dig harder to find Triple-S's handiwork in what happened against the Orioles 29 May in Camden Yards. None of the three told anyone it'd be just wonderful if the Nats could let the Orioles back into things after Ryan Zimmerman hit 3 homers in five innings and Jordan Zimmermann had a 6-2 lead. Zimmermann faced four in the sixth and all four scored. In due course Tyler Clippard surrendered a big bomb to Chris Davis and the Nats surrendered the ball game.

Don't get me started on June 27 against Arizona. Maybe Strasburg handed the Diamondbacks a two-all tie after Adam LaRoche staked him to a 2-0 lead, but nobody among the Triple-S boys told the Nats to go 0-for-6 with men in scoring position all game long, strand eight, and send the game to the extras in which Stammen surrendered the winning RBI single.

Strasburg didn't open up against the Miami Marlins on July 12 expecting to have his worst day of the season after the Nats staked him to an unusual 3-0 lead in the top of the first. But he had it in the bottom of the inning, surrendering five in the frame and leaving the game in the second. The Nats ended up with a 7-3 loss and that was only for openers.

Because on the next night, Haren threw six scoreless and the Nats actually had a 1-0 lead on Jose Fernandez. Strasburg and Storen didn't say a thing, surely, but Soriano left the wrong pitch heading for Giancarlo Stanton's wheelhouse in the ninth. The Nats had second and third with one out in the top of the 10th when Zimmerman and Scott Hairston struck out. Zimmerman wasn't finished, though: in the bottom, he threw one beyond LaRoche's zip code at first to start the winning rally, which ended when Ed Lucas beat a should-have-been double play ball.

And in every one of those games but one the Nats went in with at least an 80 percent win probability, with the one being a 75 percent.

Those were just the big symptoms of everything that really went wrong for this year's Nats. Did I mention that it happened while Stephen Strasburg wasn't shut down but while Drew Storen spent a big chunk of his season in the minors? And while the Nats normally gave Strasburg less than three runs to work with? While it looked like just about any Nats pitcher, never mind Strasburg, might have been excused for taking the mound thinking he had to pitch a shutout just to break even, at least until Werth, Harper, and Ramos were back and healthy again?

And you wonder why I think Davey Johnson deserved a better retirement send-off.

The best news is that the Nats still finish 2013 with a winning record, even if the Cardinals just made them look like a AA team while sweeping them out. They're on a 30-15 string as I write, but it wasn't enough to save them even a postseason nibble. They have nothing left to play for but pride when they finish the season against the Diamondbacks, who also have nothing but pride for which to play now.

There's something to be said about season-finishing pride rolling over to the following season. Even with a new manager.

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